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Ensemble drums up conscience as well as beauty and breakthroughs

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

The Aspen Percussion Ensemble plays its annual recital on Monday night at Harris Hall.
Colin Ryan |

Among the pieces in Monday night’s concert at Harris Hall is “Aphasia,” a 2010 work by Mark Appelbaum. The performance involves no instruments, and the sole performer, 23-year-old Aspen Music School student Kevin Schlossman, makes virtually no sound. “Aphasia” consists entirely of recorded music and body gestures.

Jonathan Haas, a member of the Music School faculty for 27 years, calls it a “breakthrough piece” — as much about character as sound, with each performer who does the piece expected to develop a different take.

“Everyone’s done it differently,” Schlossman added. “Mine got so serious; my friend does it like a clown.”

One thing not surprising about “Aphasia” is that the concert on which it is programmed is the annual performance by the Aspen Percussion Ensemble. When it comes to breaking into unexpected territory, the percussionists tend to lead the way.

“I think there is this idea that drummers are the ones who will break boundaries. A clarinetist isn’t going to do this piece,” Schlossman said recently after doing a run-through of “Aphasia” in a cramped office at The Aspen Times. Schlossman attends the Colburn School in Los Angeles, which he referred to as a very conservative institution: “Very orchestral-oriented. But the drummers are given license to do what they want.”

The Aspen Music Festival’s current summer season is presented under the banner of “Conscience & Beauty,” a theme designed to celebrate those who followed their ideals and were willing to take a stand against popular conventions. With Monday’s concert, the Aspen Percussion Ensemble spotlights that theme — and not only by doing a piece that reflects unconventional techniques like “Aphasia.” The concert features works by composers who worked in more traditional language, including Shostakovich, Arvo Pärt and Tan Dun, who used their music as a means of expressing their conscience.

“I’m not political,” Haas said. “But this is a political concert.”

Shostakovich, who famously aired his grievances against the 20th-century Soviet regime in his symphonies, is represented on the program with the entr’acte from his opera, “The Nose.”

“He’s young here,” Hass said of the piece, written in the late 1920s and adapted from a story by Nikolai Gogol. “But he’s already using this language to protest what Communism did to arts, and to people in general. It’s quintessential Shostakovich — like you’re marching down Red Square. It’s got those trademark rhythms, these rhythms that would be his music in everything he did.”

“Elegy: Snow in June,” by the Chinese-born Tan Dun, pays tribute to the victims of the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and strikes a blow for artistic freedom.

“This was a reaction to a repressive government,” Haas said. “The government had great disdain that Tan Dun was mixing Western and Chinese musical forms; the government wasn’t allowing artists to be artists. He said, ‘Oh yeah? Look at this.’ It’s 12-tone compositional style combined with Eastern, pentatonic, traditional harmonies.”

“Elegy: Snow in June” tells a story of a woman who, after being killed, has her soul float into the netherworld and then descends back to earth in the form of snowflakes. The piece is written for “every imaginable drum,” Haas said, including vibraphone, marimba and xylophone, as well as trademark Tan Dun techniques like tearing paper and knocking stones together. Each percussionist uses a whistle; there is also amplified cello.

“It’s the military, the tanks coming down the street, that kind of cacophony, and the cello takes the role of the narrator,” Haas said.

“Fratres” is by the Estonian composer Pärt, whose life was interrupted by the Soviet takeover of his country.

“He had so much criticism from the Soviets that he stopped composing and became a monk,” Haas said. “That transformed him. When he came out the other side, his music has this profoundly religious feel to it.” “Fratres” was first composed in 1977 for string quintet and wind quintet, but he has made numerous versions of it for various ensembles. Haas describes the piece as “very soft, very slow, influenced by Bach.”

Bernstein’s “Halil” features a full range of percussions — timpani, glockenspiel, wood blocks, gongs and four snare drums — plus a flute part by Bonita Boyd, who recorded the work. Bernstein dedicated “Halil” to a promising young flutist who was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt and Syria.

That covers conscience, and Haas hasn’t forgotten the other half of the summer theme. “Aria,” a 1987 piece by the 20th-century Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, is slow.

“It’s not about rhythm but sonority, patience. No one’s in a hurry,” Haas said. ”It’s deep listening. It’s two tubas, bass drum, tam-tam, four marimbas. Are we in heaven yet?”

Haas’ goal was to end the concert with “the most beautiful ensemble percussion piece ever written.” He believes he found it in “Pagoadas,” a Debussy work arranged by Grainger. In addition to four grand pianos and tuneful percussions, the instrumentation includes the aluphone, a 6-foot-long set of 34 spun aluminum bowls with a range of three octaves. Haas said the aluphone, introduced at last year’s Olympics in London, is the most recent musical invention. But it’s the sound, not the novelty, that most interests him.

“People say, ‘Oh, a drum concert, a lot of rhythm — you can be entertained; you can be thrilled,’” Haas noted. “But this is gorgeous. People will leave whistling a melody instead of tapping their feet.”


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